on Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of #blacklivesmatter

The taped discussion between Hillary Clinton and Julius Jones of Black Lives Matter is a rich and fascinating document (full transcript here). Jones begins by telling HRC, “You and your  family have been personally and politically responsible for policies that have caused … disasters in impoverished communities of color. … And so I just want to know how you feel about your role in that violence and how you plan to reverse it?”

HRC acknowledges the very bad consequences of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. But the two disagree about whether those policies were “extensions of white supremacist violence” (Jones) or else well-intentioned responses to the “very serious crime wave that was impacting primarily communities of color and poor people” and to the “very real concerns of people in the communities themselves” (HRC).

(NB It is possible that both interpretations are true, or at least partly so. For an interesting contemporaneous document on Black politicians and the 1994 Crime Bill, see this clipping, courtesy of the Brennan Center.)

Clinton repeatedly asks Jones for policy proposals, and Jones repeatedly presses Clinton for more explicit expressions of regret or changes of heart. The dialog ends with this exchange:

JONES: The piece that’s most important, and I stand here in your space, and I say this as respectfully as I can, but you don’t tell Black people what we need to do. And we won’t tell you all what you need to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: I’m not telling you—I’m just telling you to tell me.



HILLARY CLINTON: Well, respectfully, if that is your position then I will talk only to White people about how we are going to deal with the very real problems—

QUESTION: That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean. But like what I’m saying is what you just said was a form of victim-blaming. Right you were saying that what the Black Lives Matter movement needs to do to change white hearts—

HILLARY CLINTON: Look I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. …

One difference here is about mechanisms of change. Clinton acknowledges that there is value to the “the consciousness-raising, the advocacy, the passion, … of your movement,” but she believes that change always requires the passage of laws that reallocate rights and powers. Jones thinks that what Clinton believes and says to other White people about their own responsibility is a crucial element of change.

Another (related) difference is about the diagnosis of social problems. Clinton sees a set of interlocking causes for mass incarceration, including well-intentioned laws, economic factors, racism, etc. “You know, it’s not just an economic issue—although I grant that some of you will see it like that. But it’s more than that and I think there is a sense that, low level offenders, disparity treatment, we’ve got to do something about that. I think that a lot of the issues about housing and about job opportunities—’Ban The Box’—a lot of these things, let’s get an agenda that addresses as much of the problem as we can.”

In partial contrast, Jones sees one root cause to the problem, and it involves the hearts of white people (which Clinton has said you can’t change). Jones says, “Until someone takes that message and speaks that truth to White people in this country so that we can actually take on anti-Blackness as a founding problem in this country, I don’t believe that there is going to be a solution.”

My thoughts, for what they’re worth:

First, if it is ever helpful to ask any candidate about her values and priorities, then it is appropriate to probe Hillary Clinton’s “heart” on questions about race. I tend to think that we rely too much on psychological evaluations of candidates. Our impressions are almost always inaccurate, because our relationships with politicians are mediated; and they have less scope for choice than we assume. But this is a huge issue on which President Hillary Clinton might have quite a bit of scope for choice. She also has a problematic record. It is helpful to know what she deeply thinks now. That is information a citizen can use in deciding how and whether to vote.

But I have doubts about a general strategy of trying to get people to acknowledge their privileges. (This is more about the White voters to whom HRC would talk about white supremacy than about her own opinions.) “Privilege” means an unjustifiable advantage. Telling people they have a privilege may easily remind them of an advantage that they will want to protect. Cases are rare indeed when large numbers of people have acknowledged privileges and then dropped them. One example was August 4, 1789, when representatives of the French aristocracy stayed up all night voting to repeal the various privileges of the nobility. It was a glorious night but it did not end well.

The last paragraph may seem cynical, but I am optimistic about other paths to change that do not involve getting privileged people to acknowledge their privileges. The oppressed can gain leverage (economic or political) and negotiate change. Or a majority can be persuaded that change is in their interests as well. For instance, middle class white people may be persuaded that mass incarceration is unnecessarily expensive. In the transcript, HRC says, “That’s what I’m trying to put together in a way that I can explain and I can sell it.  Because in politics, if you can’t explain it and you can’t sell it, it stays on its shelf.” I don’t know if she has in mind arguments about cost, but they would exemplify arguments that she could “sell.”

I am generally committed to a critique of root-cause analysis. (See Roberto Unger against root causes and this post on the idea of root causes in education.) I believe that problems typically involve multiple causes and complex feedback loops; and sometimes you can make the most substantial and lasting difference by attacking an apparently superficial element of a system. That said, the Black Lives Matter campaign is making a strong argument that racism, if not the one root cause of a wide range of problems, is at least necessarily involved in any solution.

Finally, I do not agree with Clinton that you can’t–or shouldn’t–“change hearts.” In the 2008 primaries, she and Senator Obama had an important debate about the role of bottom-up social movements in reforming society by changing values and perceptions. Clinton tended to disparage their impact, arguing, for instance, that the main impact of the Civil Rights Movement came from politicians’ passing the Civil Rights Acts. I think Obama was right to emphasize the deep changes in values and everyday behavior that arose from the social movement. (See Wilentz v. Ganz on the Obama social movement and the Clinton/Obama spat.)

However, a national political leader is well placed to pass laws but poorly placed to lead a social movement, as I think we have observed during President Obama’s period in the White House. So it could be that HRC is correct about the role she should be playing, even if she is wrong to downplay social movements that change hearts.

(Cf. #Blacklivesmatter and Sen. Sanders: social democracy and identity politics.)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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